Brewer Profile: Tom Hill of Bemidji Brewing

The beer list at Bemidji Brewing's taproom features many traditional style // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

The beer list at Bemidji Brewing’s taproom features many traditional style // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Since the start, Tom’s focus has been to brew beers that stick to traditional style guidelines, for a few reasons. “One: It’s the celebration of that [style’s] heritage and a celebration of what has been done and what has been developed,” he says. “And there’s also the challenge of it—the simplicity of brewing something to style. Some [styles] more so than others. That’s something I kind of relish in, as well.”

According to Tom, the brewery is in the unique position of being able to brew a straightforward Pilsner, porter, or pale ale, and it will be a fresh example of something that’s not available in Bemidji. “We’re fortunate to be in a position in Bemidji where those are still completely relevant and applicable to the current market.”

But that’s not to say Bemidji Brewing’s brewing philosophy is simple. From the get-go they have dedicated time and resources into developing a barrel-aged mixed-fermentation program, which has produced Flemish-style sour reds and the brewery’s Golden Sour Ale. It was a gamble for the small, young brewery to take since every square foot of space in the first brewery meant less space to produce more of their flagship recipes, but the crew put their trust in Tom.

Starting with one oak barrel, Bemidji's barrel program has expanded to 27 red and white wine barrels and 11 whiskey barrels // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Starting with one oak barrel, Bemidji’s barrel program has expanded to 27 red and white wine barrels and 11 whiskey barrels // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

“I started really diving into the Brett and sour stuff when I was at Northern Brewer,” says Tom, his eyes lighting up. His interest immediately gravitated toward barrel-aged sour beers rather than kettle sours. “I just loved the way those beers matured over time, and just being able to watch that and know that it was then up to me and up to the brewer to determine when that beer was ready.”

Starting with one oak barrel, he propagated a house culture of microbes collected from old homebrews (some from 2008), dregs of beers he enjoyed, and commercial cultures he particularly liked. The resulting culture gave birth to all of Bemidji’s sour releases up until now, and is currently fermenting beer in the 27 red and white wine barrels stacked in the new brewhouse.

“Now, as we’ve grown into this space, we’ve got the space finally to have a stable of barrels and to begin looking at curating them, pulling the best barrels and reserving those for inoculating future barrels,” he explains, “and being able to temper everything from pH and acidity to different malt profiles just by blending.”

Tom bends over to pull the nails from two barrels resting near the entrance to the brewhouse, collecting a sample of a sour brown ale and a Flemish-style sour red. As he inspects each beer’s color, aroma, and flavor, it’s obvious that he’s most in his element with sours and gets excited with the prospect of introducing the styles to locals in the taproom.

Tom Hill pulls the nail from a barrel of Bemidji's Flemish-style sour red // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

Tom Hill pulls the nail from a barrel of Bemidji’s Flemish-style sour red // Photo by Brian Kaufenberg

He tested his Flemish-style red with locals at a private party and listened to their feedback, which was surprisingly positive. “I think it was definitely some ammunition for us to face the taproom crowd to be like, ‘Hey, this is a barrel-aged, really tart, really dry, funky Flanders sour red,’ which was our first release. And we’ve definitely garnered a following in Bemidji for it.”

Being a tourist town, the taproom receives plenty of visitors from the Twin Cities and Fargo, checking out the quality of the local beer. “I think a lot of people—this sounds totally arrogant,” Tom says apprehensively with a laugh, “but a lot of people are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect it to be that good. I didn’t expect it to be, you know, legitimate.’ It’s like, well just because it’s in a small community doesn’t negate us from brewing great beer. I’m glad folks are able to understand that—that it’s not the number of breweries in a community that determines the quality of it.”

Tom may be polite and mild-mannered, but there’s a fire in his eyes—a confidence and drive to prove to anyone and everyone just how good beer from Bemidji can be.

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About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the managing editor, writer, and photographer at The Growler Magazine. His column "Now Open (Or Damn Close) keeps you up to date on the newest breweries in Minnesota.